A Cisco Tale -September/October 2012

by: Joshua H. Balling

photography by: Katie Kaizer

On a recent late-summer day, the sun beat down with unusual intensity for Nantucket, reflecting off the Belgian-block courtyard between the Cisco Brewery, Triple Eight Distillery and Nantucket Vineyard buildings, slowly melting the ice in the dinghy holding Bill Sandole’s raw bar.

Thirsty patrons relaxed in Adirondack chairs or under umbrellas and small awnings that dot the grounds of the rural complex off Bartlett Farm Road, frequently retreating to the shady cool of the brewery bar or distillery shed for an ice-cold pint of craft beer or carefully-concocted mixed drink. Some of them grabbed oysters and clams on the half shell or a bite from the hot-dog cart that made an appearance in the late afternoon.

Just outside the entrance, parked against the fence separating the shoulder of the road from the newly-harrowed fields of Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm, cars were parked for more than a quarter-mile: Dusty rental vehicles exited by polo-shirted and madras-shorts-wearing young executives from New York and Connecticut, Jeeps with the tops down driven by surfers, bearded retirees and island natives with a rare day off, and the dented, toolbox-filled pick-up trucks of builders, landscapers and other tradespeople intent on a quick cold one at the end of long, sweaty day of work.

At least 30 bicycles filled a line of racks outside the brewery building and leaned against trees and sheds around the property as Chuck Colley played acoustic tunes at a pleasant volume in one corner.

To define the clientele – and the vibe – at Cisco as eclectic doesn’t do it justice. The brewery, winery and distillery at 5 Bartlett Farm Road has been drawing a broad cross-section of island residents and visitors for years, attracted by the laid-back atmosphere, frequent live music, craft beers and most recently, distilled spirits like Triple Eight vodka and Hurricane rum made on the premises.

But it’s not strictly an over-21 crowd, either. Families are welcome, and it’s common to see children of all ages happily wandering the property, playing bean-bag toss or tagging along with their parents on one of the daily brewery tours led by brewmaster Jeff Horner. Dogs are often too numerous to count.

“It’s an amazing place. There’s not another one like it on Nantucket. It’s so open to everyone, not just adults out here to drink,” said Tyler Herrick, who grew up on the island, has been with Cisco six years, and spends most of his summer bartending.

“It’s a mixed bag. That’s what makes this place so great. There’s a wide variety of people here. A lot of times, since the signage isn’t great, people will just sort of find there way in, and ask ‘What is this place?’ I say, ‘take a seat, relax. You’re on vacation. Have some fun’,” he added with a smile.

Humble Beginnings

The phenomenon that has become Cisco, or simply “The Brewery” to many islanders, had humble beginnings. It started over a decade ago before the distillery even existed with a small garden and courtyard just off the winery, with the occasional musician playing guitar and bartenders pouring samples of Cisco beers.

It was a low-key operation, and trying to find its niche. With the expansion of the distillery in 2007, however, the three partners saw an opportunity. They worked with architect Chip Webster to design a welcoming space that incorporated all three elements in an organic fashion.

“That original garden held about 20 people. We’d have Billy Voss sit down and play, and at the time, we were just able to serve samples,” said Jay Harman, one of three partners in the operation with Randy Hudson and Dean Long. “Chip helped us design the place. He has a good sense of creating a lively environment and put together the concept of having the three bars facing each other. Looking back, I wish we’d made the bar rooms a little bit bigger, but on a day like today, you can’t beat the weather...” he said with a smile, looking out over the dozens of patrons dotting the courtyard.

In 2008, Cisco was licensed to serve more than samples.

“What really helped evolve the place into what it is now was our ability to pour a pint, or a glass of wine, or a cocktail, and we found more and more people wanting to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere,” said Harman, who joined Cisco Brewers in 1996 after graduating from Fairfield University in Connecticut. Long and his wife Melissa had founded Nantucket Vineyard in 1981, while Hudson and his wife Wendy began brewing beer on the property in the early 1990s, and in 1997 the three partners collaborated to found the distillery.

“It grew sort of organically and holistically. We wanted to create a place where we wanted to hang out. Even our employees are here on their days off. There are only five places in the country that do all three in the same place – beer, wine and spirits. To be able to sample all the products made on the property, sit back, relax and enjoy them, there’s something special about that,” Harman said.

It all starts with the employees.

“The Cisco crew is the heart of the experience. We don't really consider them employees. They are part of the family. Each member plays an integral role in creating a memorable experience. They are great storytellers too. Instead of throwing money at expensive media and advertising, we try to tell the Cisco story over the bar at our facility,” Harman said. “This has created a bit of a cult following for our products. (Islander) Paul Sharp calls it ‘Boozneyland.’ I think the people who make up Cisco – those who work for the company and our customers – feel like they are part of the family. This sense of belonging plays a big role in why we have seen such strong organic growth both on Nantucket and off-island.”

Herrick agreed.

“It really is a family. The people who run the company are the ones distilling the vodka. They’re also the ones out there landscaping, or cleaning the courtyard. No one has any set positions here. Everyone fills in with whatever needs to be done,” he said.

There have been some bumps in the road, however, including neighbors’ complaints about noise levels from time to time, and more troublesome, a shut-down order from the town’s health department in 2010 due to an inadequate septic system that for a time limited the company’s hours of operation and halted its on-island production, and cost tens of thousands of dollars to remedy.

But those issues are behind Cisco today, Harman said, and were largely the result of growing pains.

“We’ve talked about the fact that there’s always going to be something we’re dealing with. As we grow, now that the place is established, it’s made it easier to make the decision to move forward or not. The septic system was designed for what we used to be, not what we were growing into. It was a huge outlay to get together, but now it’s working great. It was definitely worth the effort, without a doubt."

Three in One

Today, a shady, tree-lined drive leads into the Cisco property, located about a mile out of town off Hummock Pond Road on the way to Cisco Beach. Colorful, recycled-material sculptures by artist Matt Oates dot the landscape.

Most days, the bar attached to the distillery building is packed with patrons sampling Triple Eight’s multiple flavors of vodka and rum, and taking a look at its whisky, dubbed “Notch,” since being distilled in the United States it can’t legally be called Scotch.

Young bartenders move easily back and forth behind the bar, whipping up a few daily specials and concoctions like the Sleeveless T, the Pineapple Express and the Figawi Wowi.

When Triple Eight received its distillery license, whisky was the first spirit to flow from its copper still, but it would require three years of aging before it would resemble whisky or could even be tasted. Triple Eight began producing vodka to create some cash flow and pass the time. That grew into a full line of spirits that today also includes rum, gin, bourbon and specialty liqueurs.

The brewery bar is equally packed, with patrons lined up for pints of Whale’s Tale, Moor Porter and Sankaty Light on tap. For true beer geeks, there’s Cisco’s Island Reserve series that includes specialty brews like Saison Farmhouse, in which herbs and spices replace most of the hops; and Very Brown, a dark India pale ale with essences of cocoa and toffee.

In the wine room, slightly quieter on most days, the bar is lined with tasters sampling Nantucket Vineyards' latest vintages, including fruit- and botanical-infused varieties like Blueberry Pinot Gris, Peach Viognier and Sparkling Cranberry.

Long benches dot the property reminiscent of those in a Napa or French winery or German beer garden. In fact, the whole property would be right at home in Burgundy or the Napa Valley.

“It’s got that sort of feel to it, so it’s like a slice of Napa on Nantucket. There’s nothing else really like it here,” Harman said. “People are comfortable bringing their kids. There’s a lot of couples. The tour has been a big draw. It’s rare to have a tour where the brewmaster himself actually takes you on it.”

“It’s got a great vibe. It reminds a lot of people of what Nantucket used to stand for, relaxed and carefree,” Herrick said.

Music is a big part of the scene. The brewery has long brought in local acts like Colley and Jeff Ross, while island bluegrass favorite 4EZ Payments is the unofficial house band, playing most Wednesdays.

“We try in the summer, really May through mid-October, to have music every day from 4- 7 p.m. We bring in a lot of traveling bands, and work with The Chicken Box a lot. We help absorb some of the cost of getting them here by having the band come out and perform an acoustic set in the afternoon before they play there at night,” Harman said.

While it’s busiest in the summer, the property is open year-round, and takes on a more local feel in the shoulder- and off-seasons.

“It’s a seasonal thing, obviously, and the customers who support us year-round tend to hold off on visiting us on the summer weekends in particular because it’s so crowded,” Harman said. “There are days when I couldn’t name anyone in the crowd in-season. But that’s a good thing, I think. If you have a lot of new customers, it’s good for business, but I still think local support is the driving force for our success. That’s why we stay open year-round. It costs us to keep the doors open, but we’re here producing anyway. We’re happy to do it.”

Even if it’s not always busy.

“You should be here for one of our February pot-lucks,” Herrick said. “There’s usually more dogs around than people.”

On-Island Ambassador

But real work goes on at Cisco, too. Each year, the complex produces 2,000 barrels of beer, 10,000 cases of distilled spirits and 4,000 cases of wine for distribution on- and off-island, and consumption on the property.

The property – and its patrons – reflect the products, and vice versa, Harman said. Cisco uses the operation to experiment with and market new products, and to create small batches that reflect the spirit of the company.

“It’s been great for us, and helps us market the products here so that people understand the whole concept of beer, wine and spirits,” Harman said. “We are able to tout the specialty beers we’re making now. In the past, we were just grinding it out, trying to make as much Whale’s Tale (which still accounts for about 70 percent of Cisco’s business both on- and off-island) as possible. That business model has changed, where we’re now looking to make something new all the time. We’re always interested in new stuff. It’s the driving force behind the craft-beer industry now, creating new and different products.”

The current focus is Cisco Pedaler Bike Path Blueblerry Bleer, a brew aged in oak barrels with blueberries, whose proceeds will help fund bike-path construction along Hummock Pond Road.

“That’s a big thing for us this year, making sure that bike path goes in, and people are safe coming down that road,” Harman said.

“We’re making lot of different sangrias now, and in the distillery, we’re putting out a line of liqueurs, Dean’s been growing lot of botanicals on the property, so there’s something of a farm-to-table concept to it,” he added.

“Jeff, our brewer, doesn’t like to pigeonhole a style. If you do that, you’re left up to the interpretation of the guy who’s tasting it. Jeff ’s cross-hybrid styles of beer are very unique. Beer geeks are drawn to the uniqueness and quality of the beer. Some of them are not aged in wood, while our wood series is barrel-aged in wood from the vineyard and distillery. Those are mostly built to build cachet around our brands. We’ve got purchase orders for as much as we can make, but we try not to rush them.”

Market Research

Harman was quick to acknowledge the property's value as a marketing tool. Cisco’s motto has long been, “Nice Beer, If You Can Get It.”

“Our overall marketing goal is to capture what happens here in a bottle. As we’ve grown, we have been able to pick and choose the different types of products to offer that are unique to the property and it helps us drive all our flagship brands. You can’t get these products everywhere, but when you look for them, hopefully you’ll find Whale’s Tale,” he said.

“This property has become our unofficial marketing headquarters. You can’t ask for a better sampling environment. We’ve learned over the years that getting samples into people’s hands, and building an experience they can take home with them, is the best marketing we can do. Hopefully they’ll revisit that experience when they drink that product.”


Everything served at the brewery-winery- distillery complex is produced on the property, where in addition to the actual beer-, wine- and spirit-making operations, they grow their own fruit and botanicals.

“We are growing hops, chamomile and lemon verbena for the beer, grapes for the wine, and lots of botanicals for the spirits, especially for the gin and the liqueurs. Our bartenders incorporate a lot of what Dean grows into signature cocktails. There are strawberries and basil in an infusion called Strawberry Fields, mint for the blueberry-mint cocktails, and raspberries for the framboise,” Harman said.

“Randy just bottled a vermouth with all locally- grown botanicals. Dean’s green thumb plays a huge factor in many of the drinks that separate our drinks from what you get at any other island location.”

Nantucket Vineyard's sangrias have become increasingly popular, and are now being pack- aged for transport off-premises after being spurred on by a rather famous Nantucket summer resident.

“Bill Belichick came in, tried some, and asked about us packaging it,” Harman said. “We’re doing more fruit infusions for the wine. It’s a good extension for us to have flavors that are indigenous to Massachusetts, like apples, and all our blueberries are from Maine.”

Growth Potential

Cisco’s reach now extends into 22 states, including every one on the Eastern Seaboard, and as far west as Colorado. Chicago is a hotbed right now, and Cisco products are not in Texas only because the demand was too great to keep up with, Harman said.

“We try to have our brands follow not just our customers to where they’re from, but the industry, the employees on the island and where they go in the winter,” he said. “There is a huge migration of Nantucket bartenders to Palm Beach or Aspen, Vail, Telluride. There are a lot of bartenders who like the idea of being a brand ambassador for Cisco wherever they go. It helps build cachet behind the bar for them and engages the customer.”

Following the Sam Adams model, most of the Whale’s Tale and Sankaty Light sold off-island is produced at breweries in Ipswich, Mass. and Utica, N.Y.

But maintaining its island identity is paramount, Harman said.

“Developing this place to speak for our brands is key to keeping our identity. We’re not just developing a brand to contract it out. Everything starts here. Sankaty Light was a concept we came up with because we wanted to have a light beer. But light beers are hard to produce. Randy played with some recipes, and determined that there was not really a way to do it effectively on-island. We don’t make a whole lot here,” he said.

“Whale's Tale is the same thing. Producing it, especially in the 12-ounce format in the kind of volume we’re doing now, we just couldn’t do it here. It makes sense to brew it near the places it is consumed. There’s also the added cost of coming from the island. Trucking companies make a fortune on our product,” Harman said.

Next stop: California.

“California is our next push. There are tons of people from San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego who visit us. It’s very competitive, but we feel the experience we’ve built here will translate to those markets,” Harman said.

Cisco is also looking toward a number of other initiatives, including packaging its second-most popular beer, Grey Lady, in cans – it’s now only available in bottles – and is considering experimenting with labels made of something called “sound paper.”

“You scan a QR code, and then it plays a file that could tell you about the beer, or you could hear a Jeff Ross song, or see a live cam of the place,” Harman said. “How cool would that be? But there’s a lot of investment obviously involved. We’d probably want to start that project in the winter.”

Packaging Whale’s Tale and Sankaty Light in cans was a big step forward for the brewery, he added.

“It’s more affordable to ship. The package itself is better for the beer since it won’t get light-struck. Also, cans are much easier to recycle than glass, especially out here.”

The operation is always looking forward, and that’s what makes it enjoyable coming to work every day, Harman said.

“Long-term, locally, we want to create more styles of beer people can experience here and not get anywhere else. Off-island we want to expand the flagship Whale's Tale, which we are whole-heartedly pushing right now. It’s what I love about the place. There’s a lot of room for creativity. I’d get really bored with the day-to-day if we decided to stop being creative.”

But all of those future plans are in the background as the sun beats down, drops of condensation forming on a plastic cup half full of Sankaty Light on the wooden table in front of him, Colley’s acoustic guitar barely audible in the still air punctuated by laughter and conversation. It’s not a bad gig if you can get it.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.